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NPR: Weekend Edition - Sunday

Disparities Among Disability Benefits Given To Veterans

30 January 2005
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When injured veterans file claims with the government for disability benefits, the amount of cash they receive depends on where they live. A veteran in Illinois, for example, can expect $5,000 less a year than a veteran in Puerto Rico. Illinois officials want an explanation for the disparity. The Department of Veterans Affairs began a review earlier this month, and the new VA secretary says he'll continue the investigation. NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Veterans who lost a limb, injured a knee, suffered or aggravated any type of injury or illness while on active duty can receive disability pay, and about 10 percent of the nation's veterans do. The average amount each vet receives each year varies widely across the country. The most generous benefits go to veterans in New York, Maine and Puerto Rico, where the average yearly award is more than $11,000. Disability benefits in the Midwest, particularly in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, are much lower, and it's prompted Illinois officials, like US Senator Barack Obama, to call for an investigation.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I would think that it'd be an enormous embarrassment to our not only Veterans Affairs Department but also our military if veterans from Illinois are receiving lower benefits than veterans from other states. I mean, you would think, just as a matter of common sense and public policy, that all veterans would be treated in the same fashion.

CORLEY: In Illinois, disability grants typically average less than $7,000 a year. After the Chicago Sun-Times ran a series of reports detailing the disparities, Obama held hearings in the state. More than 200 veterans crowded into an American Legion Hall in suburban Chicago to tell Senator Obama their struggles. Twenty-seven-year-old Montaneus Williams(ph) walks with a cane. Eyes bulging with emotion, he says he suffered a back injury in a car accident while on duty, and progressive arthritis has spread throughout his body. Williams, who is married and has six children, says he's been unable to work. He says he receives disability pay of about $300 a month.

Mr. MONTANEUS WILLIAMS (Veteran): I went in healthy. Nothing was wrong with me. Now I got all these ailments and because I'm young, they don't want to give me what I rightfully deserve. I fought for my country, and now they don't want to--they want to hold up the process and take forever and ever, and I just want somebody to expedite it up.

CORLEY: Eighty-year-old William Jones(ph) is a World War II veteran.

Mr. WILLIAM JONES (Veteran): I got wounded in my knee, shrapnel and everything, and I got frozen feet. Now they started to give me 10 percent for my feet about eight years ago. I'm service connected, got Purple Heart. The VA ain't right.

CORLEY: Jones says he receives $218 a month in disability pay. A panel of VA officials called a ratings board determines the level of benefits a veteran receives. Mary Ellen McCarty(ph), a former nurse and Democratic staff director of a congressional subcommittee on veterans' benefits, says the VA's charts, which give percentages to injuries, help guide the process.

Ms. MARY ELLEN McCARTY (Former Nurse): But the charts don't cover every medical condition and each detail, so that leaves, you know, a certain amount of judgment for the person making the decision, and so those judgment areas are where you sometimes find discrepancies between regional offices.

CORLEY: Some veterans complain officials on the Midwest rating boards have historically been much tougher and more skeptical about a vet's injuries. Former VA Secretary Anthony Principi ordered the agency's inspector general to conduct a complete assessment of disability payment. That review is not yet complete, but Mary Ellen McCarty examined a number of cases in the VA's Chicago office.

Ms. McCARTY: I found a fair number of cases with what I would consider to be a mistake. I wouldn't necessarily translate that into harsh decision-making, although there may be some of that going on. But we did find situations where a veteran said, `You know, I have a claim for a certain condition,' and it just wasn't addressed. Now that's a clear error.

CORLEY: During his confirmation hearing this week, Jim Nicholson, the new secretary of Veterans Affairs, said he'd work to make sure veterans are treated equally. Advocates say what's needed is more staff at VA offices, more training and a willingness to understand that a lot of disabilities don't affect veterans until years after they have returned home. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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